For Cincinnati Reds players on the bubble, anxiety is heightened with Opening Day less than a week away. Those players don’t know whether they should make living arrangements in Louisville or Cincinnati or whether they will have a job at all.
The Reds break camp in Arizona on Sunday, then play exhibition games at Atlanta on Monday and Tuesday before opening the season next Thursday vs. the Pirates at Great American Ball Park.
Nick Senzel is at least secure in the knowledge he will have a job. The question is where.
There is no question about his bat and his athletic ability. His bat is the reason the Reds are teaching him to play center field after the off-season departure of Billy Hamilton. The Reds have alternatives. Scott Schebler and Phil Ervin can play center. In a pinch, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig can play there, too.
It’s those options that make Senzel’s ascent to the big leagues a question, in early 2019, at least.
“We would like to have our team together before we leave for Atlanta,” Reds manager David Bell said. “There are still decisions that are going to wait until the last two days.”
Senzel is learning the ropes in center field. There are a lot of situations that come up in games that can’t be duplicated in drills. Senzel, working with Eric Davis and Jeff Pickler on the back fields, has impressed everybody with his athleticism. He has the speed and the arm to be a good center fielder. The other aspects he can learn through playing. The question is should he learn on the job at GABP or with the Louisville Bats in Triple-A.
There have been mixed results in the 10 games Senzel has played in the outfield. It has been said that if you can play outfield in Arizona, you can play outfield anywhere. It is really hard to follow the flight of the ball. There are few clouds in the sky to provide depth, the sun is intense and blinding at times and the wind is sometimes strong and unpredictable.
In his first night game, he made a late break on a line drive. On Sunday, there was a fly ball between Senzel and Puig. Both outfielders were there but the ball fell in for a double. On another play, Senzel’s speed made up for an early mistake on a line drive. He made the diving catch.
It isn’t the first time Senzel has had to prove himself. He didn’t make his high school team as a freshman but the coach let him work out with the team. He turned himself into a good player but not good enough to be drafted out high school. He was offered a scholarship by the University of Georgia.
Senzel was born in Atlanta but grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. There was a coaching change at Georgia and Senzel decided to stay home and play for the Volunteers. He played shortstop and was moved to third base.
He soon became one of the most sought-after hitters in college baseball.
The Reds made him their first pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2016 draft.
As a professional, he continued to hit while playing third base, second base and shortstop. He hit .329 at Dayton, .305 at Daytona, .340 at Pensacola and was among the International League offensive leaders at .310 for Louisville before tearing ligaments in his thumb. It was a rapid rise.
Making the leap to the Major Leagues this spring would be just as daunting, especially while learning a new position. The glut of outfielders was so large that the Reds released Mason Williams on Monday.
Offensively, it hasn’t been that daunting for Senzel.
Senzel is hitting .300 with three doubles. The competition he is facing, the established Major Leaguers, are doing just as well this spring. Puig is hitting .375 with four home runs. Kemp is at .323 with three home runs. Schebler is hitting .429 with a home run. Jesse Winker has two home runs but is hitting .147. Ervin, who will probably end up being a victim of the numbers game, is hitting .361 with three doubles and five home runs.
“I just try not to let it get bigger than it really is,” Senzel said. “At every level the pitching gets better but I just try to stay with my strengths.”